State Committee Hears Testimony On Civil Rights Of Prisoners With Mental Illness

The Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met in Lincoln Thursday to hear testimony about prisoners with mental illness. (Becca Costello, NET News)
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June 14, 2019 - 10:00am

A state advisory committee heard public testimony Thursday about civil rights concerns facing incarcerated individuals with mental illness. 


The Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met in Lincoln to gather data from state officials and advocacy groups.

The panel heard from Sen. Steve Lathrop, the chair of the Nebraska Judiciary Committee, officials from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, and organizations including Legal Aid of Nebraska, ACLU of Nebraska, and the Nebraska Mental Health Association. 

Nikitah Imani is a committee member and a professor in the Black Studies department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He says one barrier to improving care in the state is lack of coordination:

"My sense is that everyone seemed to be, who was concerned about this, seemed to be working on something," Imani said. "But it became very clear to me after the first couple of panelists, 'okay you’re doing this, you’re doing this,' but they’re not all in a sense webbed together."

Jason Kotas is a reentry specialist for RISE, a nonprofit organization that works with people with criminal records. He also served 15 years in prison, and says he knows first-hand that the stigma of mental illness prevents inmates from getting help.

“We’re not inmates, we’re not convicts, if you have a mental illness you’re not crazy, if you have an addiction you’re not a druggie," Kotas said. "Everybody’s human, and we need to start looking at everybody as human beings."

Charity Upchurch of Bellevue spoke about how difficult it was for her to get treatment for her bipolar disorder after being arrested during a psychotic episode. 

"I was never given the option to meet with a therapist or a psychologist or psychiatrist," Upchurch said, "The goal of my testimony today is to provide insight into those damaging effects of severe isolation, also known as solitary confinement or restrictive housing, on those with mental illness. I hope that psychiatric screening and treatment service can be made available in all jails and prisons throughout Nebraska so that nobody else has to experience the horrific psychiatric symptoms that I lived through alone." 

Eleven people spoke during the panels in the morning, and three people spoke during the public comment period. 

The state committee will accept written public comment through July 15. Comments can be emailed to Melissa Wojnaroski at mwojnaroski@usccr.gov

After the public comment period ends, the committee will send a report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and may send recommendations on possible changes to state leaders as well.

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